This month we take a closer look at foster parenting. Even if you aren't thinking about becoming a foster parent, what follows will help you understand the process better. Foster parents play a critical role in helping families rebuild themselves. Connecticut faces a critical shortage of available foster homes, with several hundred children in need of placement. Home for Good, one of four priorities of the Village's Bicentennial Champions for Children Campaign, focuses on foster care and adoption. Through Home for Good, the Village reminds everyone that there are no unwanted children, only unfound families. Visit our website here for information on fostering.
Is Your Child Ready to Be a Foster Brother or Sister?
May is National Foster Care Month. For many, fostering carries many myths. But done with deliberation and love, opening your home to a foster child is one of the most fulfilling experiences a family can have. Those who are already parents are perhaps the best prepared to foster a child, but they also have added concerns about preparing their birth children to be a part of a fostering family.
We asked two Village experts how to prepare a birth child to be a foster sibling. Runa Wassermann is program director for foster care and adoption at the Village; Lynn Webber teaches our Common Sense Parenting classes. They bring unique points of view on the topic. Runa has been working at the Village placing children in adoptive and foster homes for 27 years. Lynn and her husband, Rich, have fostered eight children in addition to their own five girls.
Both Lynn and Runa stress involving your child as early as possible in the fostering process. Younger children need to know plans early, while older children should, as much as possible, feel involved in the decision to foster. It may even be advisable to include older children in the training that prospective foster parents undergo. An excellent way to involve children is in preparing the home. Helping to paint the new bedroom or arrange furniture, for example, can give your birth children a stake in a foster child's success.
Lynn cites an interesting example of the unexpected ways that children can respond to and shape the fostering process. Lynn and Rich had taken in an adolescent boy. He was their first foster child and the entire family seemed to adapt well to the new situation, particularly their daughter Jillian. So much so that when another child, a girl, needed a foster home, the couple decided to have her live with them, too. This time Jillian did not do so well. As she talked to her, Lynn discovered that Jillian, who was about 9 at the time, felt threatened by having another girl in the home. As a result, Lynn and Rich agreed to take in boys only and Jillian - and the whole family - did fine from there on.
Prospective foster parents must understand and manage expectations of their birth children. Children should understand, for example, that a foster child usually won't be a permanent part of a family. Ideally the situation is temporary while the foster child's family stabilizes. On the other hand, a foster child is more permanent than, say, a friend visiting. While children may be good at sharing toys for an afternoon, a foster child won't go home before dinner and the ability to share will be more important than ever. Taking time to ask your children what they think it will be like to have a foster child in the home and correcting misconceptions will go a long way to avoiding future misunderstandings.
Fostering can also be a lesson in relativity. Foster children often bring great needs and may be behind their foster siblings in terms of following the rules. What marks praise-worthy progress for a foster child, may be something your birth child mastered years ago. A child who has worked very hard to keep his room clean will have difficulty understanding why his foster sister is praised for picking up her shoes when the rest of her room is a mess. Preparing birth children ahead of time for this aspect of fostering will help them understand not only why you as parents do what you do, but also what the foster child may need in terms of support.
Bringing a foster child home is a major event in the history of your family and your children will respond accordingly, in ways both expected or unexpected. When working with prospective foster parents, the Village helps them anticipate what their children might go through. But even before beginning discussions with an agency like the Village, talking with your child to manage and set expectations is important. While fostering is challenging, both Lynn and Runa remind parents to focus on the positive as well. Fostering is rewarding and your children should never forget that their family is doing something that can transform the life of a foster child.
Brothers and Sisters
What's it like to grow up within a fostering home? The question has no one truly satisfying answer: No two families are exactly alike. Even within a family, different siblings have their own completely distinct perspectives. Still, to get an idea of what life in a foster family is like, we talked to two members of Richard and Lynn Webber's foster family: Jillian, their youngest birth daughter, and Dorian, their first foster son.
Jillian, now 22 and a recent graduate of the University of New Haven, works for the Stepping Stone Program, a residential behavioral health services program for girls in Waterbury, Connecticut. She was about eight when her parents opened their home to foster children. By that time, her four older sisters were all out of the house, so she was enjoying life as virtually an only child.
Jillian describes contradictory feelings about the arrival of Dorian. On the one hand, she remembers being very excited to have someone to "show off" for. The UConn women's basketball team had just completed their perfect 1995 season, which Jillian had followed avidly. And she proudly showed Dorian the clippings she had collected.
However, she also remembers that it was difficult to share her parents with someone else. With Dorian, the age difference helped. Jillian was four years younger than her new foster sibling and so could maintain her role as the baby of the family. Later, when foster children closer to her age came to stay, she had to work harder to get along.
For Dorian, the Webber home was "different." No single act of abuse or neglect had led to his being placed with Lynn and Rich. Looking back, he describes his birth family as simply not functioning: an observation confirmed by Lynn. "My mother just didn't have her stuff together," Dorian says today of his birth mother, with whom he maintains contact. "We were bouncing around from home to home, school to school, living in shelters. When I came to Lynn and Richard's house, I was in 7th grade and had probably lived in 20 separate houses." So the Webber home, in which order was well established, was a change.
Discipline was also part of Dorian's new home life. Lynn and Rich owned two horses, and it was common for the Webber children to draw corral duty as a consequence for bad behavior. "There were times I raked about a football field," Dorian jokes. Lynn and Dorian are both quite frank about the adjustment that he had to make to succeed in the Webber home. It wasn't always smooth.
Dorian also mentions that the fact that having other foster children around, as was often the case, was helpful for him. Other foster children understood what Dorian was going through in ways that most people couldn't.
Talking to Dorian and Jillian today, it is perhaps striking to someone who has no direct experience with foster care to learn how ordinary their relationship is. While there seems to have been a period of transition, both are hard pressed to remember anything out of the ordinary about growing up together. Both independently of each other describe themselves as simply brother and sister.
Today, Dorian, 26, has a career as a boilermaker, difficult and skilled work building and repairing boilers in power plants. He and his girl friend, Kadi, recently celebrated the arrival of their first child. In the birth announcement, Dorian listed Rich and Lynn as grandparents to his son, Dorian III.
If that is a tribute to the Webber family and the power of fostering, here's another. Asked separately if, having lived in a fostering home, either would themselves be a foster parent, both Jillian and Dorian unequivocally said "Yes."
Families and Children in the News
Here are a few articles and opinion pieces about issues, including those discussed above, that Village deals with everyday. Please note that by clicking the links below, you will leave our website. The Village for Families and Children takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those sites, as we do not exercise editorial or other control over them.
Visit the May is National Foster Care Month website. You Can Change a Lifetime!
The Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents will hold its annual conference May 15-16 in Farmington.
Find out more at their website.
Charlottesville Daily Progress, April 6, 2009
"Experts fear economy hurts area foster care," by Brandon Shulleeta
cbs4denver.com, April 5, 2009
"Forever Family Allows Foster Child To Thrive"
Learn more about adoption at AdoptUSKids.org.
Public News Service, March 23, 2009
AZ Human Service Providers: "Cut Now, Pay Much More Later"
Wired, March 30, 2009
"Poverty Goes Straight to the Brain," by Brandon Keim